Next big thing: the cell phone as broadcast camera

September 28, 2009: 11:01 AM ET

User-generated video goes mobile - and live

Ramu Sunkara was at home in Silicon Valley three years ago, chatting with a friend in Moscow, when inspiration struck. He didn't just want to hear about his friend

Sunkara: inspired by a Moscow snow frolick. Photo: Qik

Sunkara: inspired by a Moscow snow frolic. Photo: Qik

playing in the snow with his kids. He wanted to see it, live.

Now he can. Soon after that phone conversation, Sunkara and two friends started Qik (pronounced "quick"), a company whose software lets cell phones broadcast video live to the Internet.

Today, Qik and other mobile video services are still in their infancy. But consumers finally have an excuse to try them, now that they have access to 3G networks and a new crop of video-equipped smartphones. According to Nielsen VideoCensus, Qik has so far attracted just a tiny audience, though its popularity seems to have spiked recently. Since its iPhone app began working over 3G networks in August, viewers have stayed on the site six times longer.

"When we launched, only two phones were capable of doing live video," says Sunkara, Qik's CEO. "Now practically every new phone can."

Cell phone video in general is a fast-growing category. Google (GOOG) says that YouTube's cell phone video uploads increased fivefold just a week after the release of the latest video-capable iPhones (AAPL). Facebook has begun adding video capture to its cell phone apps. And sites like Ustream and Flixwagon are experimenting in the same live mobile video niche where Qik is making a name for itself.

Mobile video's appeal lies in its simplicity. Whereas standalone camcorders typically require that you plug into a PC to edit video or share it with friends, video-equipped smartphones are always connected. Shoot a short video clip on a smartphone, and seconds later your friends can view it on YouTube, or on social networking sites. (This assumes, of course, that you can get a reliable 3G signal, or find a WiFi hotspot.)

More lame, amateur video?

Live cell phone video is a neat trick, but the jury's still out on whether it's more than another excuse for amateurs to flood the Internet with bad video. Just as YouTube brought us boring webcam monologues and dancing babies, Qik.com is brimming with video of conference presentations and people driving around in their cars.

And sometimes the footage is even more oddball than that. Recently on Qik.com, a user in Benahavis, Spain used the service to stream shaky video of his hotel room, and the pool outside. Another in Bielefeld, Germany filmed himself sitting quietly. Over at Flixwagon, many of the clips were similarly puzzling; one person used the service to display the milk aisle in a grocery store in Greece.

All of which suggests that users have no idea what to do with this new live video technology. On the bright side, though: it can only get better.

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